In 1907 the UIA was created in an endeavour to coordinate international organization initiatives. Much emphasis was placed on documentation, including a very extensive library and museum function.
Gradually the focus shifted to promoting internationality, emphasizing a facilitative role, representing the collective views of international bodies where possible, especially on technical issues. Increasingly its role as an information clearing house was emphasized, with a stress on the conceptual challenges that this raised. The need to trace and map networks of relationships has been a more recent concern, in order to manage and comprehend complexity more effectively. This has also developed into a concern with the organization of knowledge, and the use of metaphor, to catalyze creative new initiatives.
With this context, there are many levels of meaning to the terms in the UIA title:
In logic this term denotes a combination, or joining, of elements, or sets, in the most abstract and general sense. In its work, the UIA has traditionally emphasized the social and organizational interpretation of such combinations -- namely how organizations can coordinate and integrate their activities.
However the work of the UIA has extensively covered unions of subjects, problems, disciplines, strategies, values and understandings of human development, in various explorations of the possibility of more fundamental integrative dimensions. This work therefore implies a deep and long-standing commitment to a much subtler and more abstract approach to union as a form of conceptual "keystone".
The conceptual challenge of the nature of any such union, and of how it is to be understood and given form, is therefore a continuing one, rather than already determined and thus readily definable. The social or institutional emphasis is merely one specific and important aspect of this. It should emerge from new understandings of how seemingly incompatible perspectives and functions can be provided with a more dynamic integrative framework. This challenge is central to the problem of governance at this time.
In understanding the challenge of union, through its own historical development since 1910, the UIA has explored such phases as: creation of a superordinate structure; collection of organization products; advocacy of organization formation; elaborating a coherent collective positions; collection of information on organization activity; possibilities of meaningful configurations; logical combinations; to the challenge of symbolic unity.
In any discipline concerned with relationships, this term emphasizes patterns of relationships. In psychology and humanistic studies, an association is indicative of connectedness going beyond any more obvious direct linkage.
In its work, the UIA has invested heavily in documenting networks, namely the many types of relationship between organizations, between subjects, between values, between problems, between strategies, and the like. It is also unique in exploring ways to document the linkages between such distinct classes of conceptual entities.
The pattern of relationships between social groupings, which constitute an "association" or organization, is merely a specific social manifestation of such association. Recognizing such patterns is central to the problem of sustainable development.
In understanding the challenge of associations, through its own historical development since 1910, UIA explorations have focused on: formal organization membership; organization activities; collective concerns and initiatives; mutual relevance; relationships; transfunctional linkages; patterns of relevance; to an understanding of relationships in their most general sense.
The UIA has long been sensitive to the many variant interpretations of "international", including possible contrasts between "transnational" and "international". Much emphasis has been placed on international as including inter-cultural, namely that which crosses not only geopolitical boundaries but also belief systems of different kinds.
In effect the UIA has responded to the challenge of relationships between psycho-social territories or fiefdoms, seen as representing legitimate differences of perspective. Recognizing relationships and complementarities between such functional territories is essential to any response to social fragmentation.
In understanding the challenge of international through its own historical development since 1910, UIA explorations have included: emphasizing internationally-constituted bodies; recognizing internationally-oriented bodies; the nature of transnational and transdisciplinary bodies; multi-sectoral entities (crossing boundaries of category or culture); functional complementarity; to understandings of how local is integrated into global, whether from a territorial or conceptual perspective.
The preoccupations of the UIA go far beyond a narrow definition of a "union of international associations". In this sense the name "union of international associations" effectively emphasizes a collective challenge, mission or social project, rather than the institution engaged in that mission.
This broader understanding is contextual to any specific organizational understanding. The challenge of how knowledge relationships or associations, crossing conceptual and belief system boundaries, are held in any conceptual framework or union is much more appropriate to the 21st Century than is any narrow institutional focus. Any advance on the latter front is necessarily dependent on advances in understanding in relation to the former.
This table explores the relationship between the meanings that can be usefully associated with the three terms in the title of the Union of International Associations and the kinds of activity it undertakes.
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